Nina Packebush Interviews Young Motherhood Project Creator Jendella Benson
People who you would expect to get it, or at least be open to the idea that teen moms need support, people who get it in all the other ways—who are completely woke on racism and classism and homophobia and transphobia and all the other ways that people are oppressed and marginalized, but when it comes to teen moms there’s not a lot of difference between the left and the right.
In 2013, UK writer and photographer Jendella Benson began photographing, filming, and interviewing women who were or had been “young moms.” Inspired by young mothers she knew personally, she wanted her project to challenge the stereotypes associated with teen motherhood as well as honor and inspire other young moms.
In January, 2015, Teresa Pearce and Kate Green, both members of parliament, hosted a Young Motherhood video and photography event at the House of Common. Excerpts from Jendella’s video project have appeared in The Guardian, Buzzfeed, and The Huffington Post. Recently Jendella released the print version of the Young Motherhood Project, Young Motherhood: The Triumphs, The Challenges, The Truth, a beautiful book filled with photographs and first person narratives of current and former teenage mothers. This book is a powerful testament to the strength and determination of women who society deems not fit to be parents.
I recently sat down with Jendella to discuss her book. Our interview quickly turned into a passionate conversation which left me feeling motivated and inspired in my work to empower teenage mothers like myself and my daughter.
Nina: After the success of your video project, what made you decide to go on to create this book?
Jendella: I view it as one large project. It’s just a different way of communicating that project. I guess the book is a way to encapsulate everything. It’s essentially the transcripts of the women in full, so you can read them in their own words in their entirety because when you’re making videos you’re editing down. I wanted to present the stories as they told them without me interfering to repackage them in any way. There really wasn’t anything of me in there.
Nina: How has it been received so far?
Jendella: It’s been really good. I guess I kind of saw it as potentially a niche audience—although I’d like everyone to read it and to kind of engage with the project—I’m aware that…I don’t know, when you start talking about young moms or teen moms there are some people whose ideas are so fixed in their mind that they’re not really willing to look into a story beyond the impression that they already have. I’ve been surprised by how many people haven’t even necessarily engaged in the project any other way, but when they saw that there was a book they were really excited about it and were like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get it.” It’s been received really really well. And the moms themselves who took part in it really like the book. A few of them said they literally just read it start to finish in just a couple of sittings because it was just so good to see their story in the context of other people’s lives as well.
Nina: It’s interesting what you say about a niche market. It’s like that here in the United States as well. People are so set on their ideas on what a teen mom is and that idea is often pretty negative.
I know you describe yourself as a feminist and I find that among feminists that it’s sort of shocking to me that it boils down to if you’re a teenager and you become pregnant there are only two real choices that you’re allowed to make: abortion or adoption. And of course with anti-choice people you have to continue the pregnancy, but then you pretty much have to choose adoption. For feminists it’s you either have an abortion or you choose adoption, but nobody looks at the choice of continuing the pregnancy and then raising the child. Being a teen mom is a choice.
Within the feminist movement I think that’s one place where we really drop the ball is supporting teenage mothers. There are three choices: abortion, adoption, and raising a child.
Jendella: Yeah, definitely. In the beginning engaging with some feminists the impression I got was that, well we need to make sure that these young women can have an abortion if they want to have an abortion and I was like well what if they want to keep the pregnancy and raise their child? Where’s the feminist support for a young woman taking control of her life and making the decision that they want to be a mom and having that kind of rally and support in the way that people rally for reproductive rights like birth control and abortion. I would like to see more conversations in feminist circles about, how do we support teen moms and how do we come against the stigma and bias in progressive circles? People say they’re progressive, but when it comes to talking about this particular matter you see the same kind of narratives emerge—or the same kind of presumptions—that you’d see with anyone who you might consider to be conservative.
Nina: People who you would expect to get it, or at least be open to the idea that teen moms need support, people who get it in all the other ways—who are completely woke on racism and classism and homophobia and transphobia and all the other ways that people are oppressed and marginalized, but when it comes to teen moms there’s not a lot of difference between the left and the right a lot of the times. It’s really disheartening.
A fair amount of the women in the book sounded like they might be against abortion I think when it comes to teen moms, teen moms are teen moms, everyone needs support. Whether or not you believe in abortion isn’t even necessarily relevant because nobody questions whether an older pregnant woman is pro-choice or not. It’s not relevant. That discussion only comes up around teenage parents. Can you speak a bit about that and also is this a pro-life project?
Jendella: Yeah, I do think it’s pretty interesting.
Some people have asked if this is a pro-life project and, no, it’s not.
It’s not really about that because, like you said, if you’re a teen mom you’re a teen mom, that’s what it’s about. But I have had a chance to talk to some pro-life people in church circles because I was raised in church and I still go to church, so I do talk to a lot of people in those kinds of circles.The conversations I’ve been having with them is, you say that you’re pro-life but being pro-life is being pro-life and that includes the life a teen mom and also her child. So it’s like that ideology sometimes doesn’t translate beyond the fetus.
It’s like, oh yeah let’s protect the fetus, but then it’s like once that child and that mom are in the world you can’t shut them out of your churches. You can’t deny them the support that they need because you don’t agree with whatever decision that they’ve made. I find it quite hypocritical.
I mean that sounds like a strong judgement for me to make, but I do find it quite interesting in terms of where the value is placed when it comes to pro-life. The life of the fetus has value. Like, oh my gosh we have to save the fetus, but then when it comes to the lives to the young woman and her child it’s kind of like, well she’s done this thing we don’t approve of so now she can’t come to our church youth group or we’ll see her on the street and we’ll look down on her. So I think it’s kind of opened up conversations amongst some pro-life people that I know. Like if you say you’re pro-life then how do you react to people who have made the kind of decisions that you on paper agree with.
For me it’s really about supporting women and changing the narrative and allowing these women to have pride in their lives and the amazing things that they’re doing.
One of the other things that often came up is just how people were not congratulated once they decided to keep their baby. Instead it was like, oh my gosh, you’re doing this really terrible thing.
Nina: After talking with these women what do you think is the biggest challenge that teen mothers face?
Jendella: I think the one that really sticks out to me over and over again is how people talk about drop-out rates with teen moms and how, oh you’re less likely to graduate and go on to university and that kind of stuff. People paint it as if it’s a lack of ambition, but it’s not. For most women they just don’t have the resources or the opportunity to continue their education because a lot of women do end up going back to get their education, but just at a later stage. A lot of people don’t have support so it’s like well of course you’re not going to carry on in high school or carry on in university when you don’t have the money to pay for childcare or you don’t have anyone to look after your child. That really infuriates me because I see it brought up time and time again. You know the narrative—teen moms are more likely to drop out of school and they’re less likely to carry on to higher education and their kids are going to be in poverty because of this that and the other and in reality it’s not for any reason beyond the fact that society doesn’t make it possible.
I’m sure many young women would continue their education if they could, but they can’t because schools aren’t prepared and universities aren’t prepared. It’s something that’s regurgitated time and time again. They all drop out. They all drop out. They all drop out. But nobody asks why they drop out and what can be done, instead people act like it’s a problem with the moms.
When it comes to teen moms there’s this narrative and people just keep repeating it over and over again without even stopping for a minute to examine it. It’s just passed down, the media promotes it, and people just buy into it without stopping for a second to really examine their beliefs.
Recently here in the US there was 19-year-old mom of two who left her kids in her car on a hot day and went to a party and the kids ended up dying and every headline mentioned that she was a teen. Teenage Mother Kills Children. Teenage Mother Leaves Kids in Hot Car to Die. But last year a 35-year-old man was convicted of intentionally leaving his young son in a hot car to die and not one headline said, Thirty-Five-Year-Old Man Leaves Child in Car to Die. His age was irrelevant. And the conversation around this mom was, she must not have had sex education, she must not have had access to birth control, she must have been overwhelmed because she was too young to have kids. And then everyone used this case as evidence that teenage mothers aren’t fit, which of course they never said about 35-year-old parents when the other case hit the news.
Everyone just claimed this mom was overwhelmed because she was too young to have her kids yet they don’t take it the next step and ask how can we support teen moms. The only conversation is that she never should have had the kids. There’s no discussion about, how could we as a society could have possibly prevented this (assuming she was overwhelmed) by making sure that young moms have supports in place to help them be the best moms that they can be. Teenagers are going to have kids. It’s just a fact of life.
Jendella: Yeah, it’s not a new thing. It’s not like a decade ago all the sudden teenagers started having the capability to give birth. Teenagers have been having children since people have been having children. There’s no secondary response in terms of okay what can we do to help or support teen moms so they can do x, y, and zed. It’s really infuriating to me.
Nina: Like you said, people don’t celebrate the children born to teen moms. There’s no congratulations. People don’t rush out to say even something as simple as, oh my gosh, your baby’s so beautiful.
I was teen mom. My daughter was a teen mom and this kind of reaction from everyone you encounter. It’s like they’re trying to set you up to fail, they want to see you fail. It’s a terrible feeling and then you end up isolated and you have to work twice as hard as an older parent because you want so badly to prove them wrong. It puts so much pressure on you because you aren’t allowed to have bad days, you aren’t allowed to talk about the hard times, you’re not allowed to ask for help, you aren’t allowed to make the mistakes that older moms do because if you do it’s just seen as proof that you aren’t fit.
People don’t stop to think, what would happen if I just said, Congratulations! Can I make you dinner? Here’s a bouquet of flowers and I’m going to make a meal train for you, like they would do for a 25-year-old or a 35-year-old, or a 40-year-old mom.
Jendella: Yeah, There’s another thing that also comes up in the UK in the coverage and that’s that teen moms are more likely to experience postnatal depression and it’s like, well it kind of makes sense when everyone is making you feel absolutely terrible about the decision that you’ve made. Why would you not be feeling postnatal depression in higher proportion than older moms?
Nina: In my situation and in my daughter’s situation feeling the pressure to be the perfect mom was so immense that it times it was completely overwhelming. We set girls up for impossible standards and then shame them when they fall short.
Jendella: It’s infuriating.
Nina: Well, I love your book. I hope everyone reads it and sees that teen moms are no different than older moms.
We love our kids. We want what’s best for them. We want to be successful in whatever way we define success. We want to respected and supported as mothers. We deserve that and so do our kids.
You can get your own copy of this beautiful book here:
Nina Packebush is forever a teen mama. Her new YA novel, Girls Like Me, will be out in November, 2017, published by Bink Books. Girls Like Me is the story of one bad-ass, queer, teenage mama. wehaveraisedpresidents.org